Former Gwinnett officer testifies suspect 'appeared to not be compliant' when he struck his face with his foot

Robert McDonald took the stand to testify in his own defense Tuesday.

The jury in charge of deciding whether former Gwinnett County police officer Robert McDonald is guilty of using excessive force during a traffic stop in April 2017 heard McDonald, now 28, recount the incident in his own words Tuesday.

McDonald said on April 12, 2017, he ran up to the scene with his gun drawn after his former sergeant, Michael Bongiovanni, called for backup because he was allegedly in a fight with Demetrius Hollins.

McDonald said he didn’t know anything about the situation when he ran up other than Bongiovanni was in a fight. However, during the call for backup, McDonald said Bongiovanni’s voice, which was “always cool, calm and collected,” sounded “more heightened than usual.”

“I had never heard his voice like that before,” McDonald said.

McDonald said police officers are trained to draw their guns when they are unsure about the type of situation they are approaching. He said Hollins did not appear to be in handcuffs and appeared to not be in compliance.

“Running up, he (Bongiovanni) appeared out of breath and later on he had told me he had handled it,” McDonald said. “I said, ‘Sarge, I didn’t know he was cuffed.’ He said, ‘… I would have stopped you, but I couldn’t breathe. I was trying to catch my breath. That’s why I didn’t tell you to stop when you were running up.’”

McDonald said he attempted to place Hollins “in a position of disadvantage,” by bringing his foot down on the back of his shoulders, but missed and hit the side of his cheek.

“So you felt the best way to divert him was to kick him in the head?” Charissa Henrich, lead prosecutor in the case, said.

“You keep saying I kicked him in the head,” McDonald said. “I stepped on him. I wasn’t aiming for his head. I was aiming for his shoulder.... It was a step.”

McDonald said he then pushed Hollins back down and “knelt on him to prevent him from rolling anymore,” as he saw that as a sign of active resistance.

He said he kept his gun pointed at Hollins until Bongiovanni finished searching Hollins for weapons, but that his finger was not on the trigger. McDonald said he holstered his weapon immediately after that.

When McDonald’s attorney, Walt Britt, asked him whether he ever intended to “kick,” “cause harm,” “exact some type of revenge,” “punch” or “administer justice on the side of the road,” McDonald said, “No, sir. Absolutely not.”

Last week, Hollins testified that McDonald said he was going to “shoot me and splat my brains all over the street if I moved” while he was on the ground. On Tuesday, McDonald said he never said anything to that effect.

“(The gun) was not dug into his head by any means,” McDonald said, adding that he only told Hollins to not move or to stop moving.

McDonald also said that when Hollins was in Bongiovanni’s SUV, Hollins said to him, “Hey, can I ride with you to the jail? I don’t want to ride with that officer.”

“Which striked me as strange,” McDonald said.

McDonald said that throughout the incident he did not see or know that Bongiovanni had struck Hollins with his forearm or that he had tased him. It was only after the incident, McDonald said, that Bongiovanni reminded him that they had dealt with Hollins before and that Hollins had a gun under his seat during that separate incident.

McDonald said he did not write in his report that he had drawn his gun because it wasn’t required. It’s only required if the gun is fired, he said.

“You were never charged with false or misleading information, were you?” Britt said. “In the first indictment, you weren’t even charged with that were you? In the second indictment, you weren’t, were you?”

“No sir,” McDonald said in response to each question.

“Who was?” Britt said.

“Sgt. Bongiovanni,” McDonald said.

“And they (prosecutors) dismissed the charges, correct?” Britt said.

“Yes sir,” McDonald said.

McDonald said Bongiovanni told him to be honest, say what happened and why he did what he did in his report. McDonald also clarified for the prosecutors that he responded to a fight call, not a traffic stop.

Both McDonald and Bongiovanni were fired from the Gwinnett County Police Department the day after the incident. Since then, McDonald said on Tuesday, he went back to school and got his aircraft mechanic license.

He has maintained his innocence over the past three years, but, if convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of 26 years in prison.

“Are you telling this jury that you feel like your actions were reasonable...?” Britt said in the last few moments of recross examination.

“Yes sir,” McDonald said.

The court will reconvene Wednesday at 9 a.m. for closing arguments.

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Chamian is a reporter with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Appalachian State University, as well as a graduate of Gwinnett County Schools. She previously covered politics and education in North Georgia.

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